The Scientific Case For Happiness: How to Rewire Your Brain and Take Control of Your Life by Jenna Abdou


In an average day, I convince myself that I have at least three disorders. I am a self-diagnosed hypochondriac. Yes, I see the irony here.

Ranging from the serious - Will these voices in my head ever stop? - to the non-serious - Why did I ask that interview question? - I often engage in what Paige Craig, an investor at Arena Ventures, has identified as “Creative Destruction.” 

“I question my beliefs and my tactics; I tear myself down and try to figure out what I’m missing, what I’m doing poorly, where I’m letting people down. And then I build myself back up again,” he said.

While I’m a firm believer that creative destruction has its benefits, if you don’t build yourself back up like Paige, it’s all consuming; And, not in a good way. 

The reason it’s all consuming is that we get trapped by what Scott Crabtree, Founder of Happy Brian Science, coins as thinking in a rut: “Analyzing something until you’re paralyzed.”

Whether it’s a burnt batch of cookies or a decision you made at work, it’s when you think about something so intensely that you create a false reality. 

These stories become the way we define ourselves. Leading to the default declaration that: “This is just the way I am.” 

According to Scott, “Saying this is just the way you are is a cop-out. This is just the way you are today, in this moment. If you don’t like it you can rewire your brain to change it.”

“We can rewire our brains with virtually everything we think and do…You can see physical changes in brain structure in under a month if you do something repeatedly and intensely,” he shared. 

The first step to rewiring your brain is accepting that you have the power to do so. 

In today’s featured episode, Scott shares tangible strategies to cope with stress, practice gratitude, and get into a state of flow. Here are the highlights. 

The most important shift you can make in changing your behavior is practicing mindfulness: The act of being completely aware of the present moment without judgment. 

If the words mindfulness and meditation feel too abstract to you, consider trying a 4-6-8 breath to ground yourself in the present moment. 

Close your eyes. Breathe in for four seconds. Hold the breath for six seconds, and then breathe out for eight seconds. 

When you open your eyes, you’ll feel more relaxed. By completely emptying your lungs of air you have to take a deep breath to fill them again. Slow breathing signals our bodies and brain that we’re safe, thus calming us down. 

Imagine if you could feel this clarity after receiving a stressful email or feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list. You’d likely feel more in control of the situation.

Practicing mindfulness during times of stress is the difference between responding and reacting

Your Prefrontal cortex - which Scott labels as your inner CEO - needs time to respond. The 4-6-8 breath provides that time, taking 18 seconds to be exact. (Sorry, your brain isn’t a Ferrari).

Here’s an example. The investor you pitched last week emailed you saying that the firm’s not interested in participating in your round. 

Your immediate, unfiltered, reaction may be: ‘You’re going to regret this! Don’t ever speak to me again.’ 

However, your response to the same rejection, using the 4-6-8 breath technique, may be a polite email asking for feedback on the product and how you can make your pitch stronger.

Pro tip: You can practice the 4-6-8 breath in public without closing your eyes.

We all face daily stresses that leave us feeling out of control. 

According to Scott, studies have shown that our life circumstances are only 10% of our overall happiness. Meaning that the way you respond to your experiences is the most telling indicator of your well-being. 

Our perception of the present moment is a depiction of how happy we are. 

The same perspective can be applied to evaluating our strengths and weaknesses. Instead of holding your breath in creative destruction, focus on the things that you’re already great at. 

“There is tremendous value on focusing and feeding what is going right. In particular, what’s going right with people…The counterintuitive part about strengths is that most weaknesses can be made irrelevant and don’t need to be fixed,” Scott explained. (More on this in the interview!)

The same applies to the people around us. We focus on our colleagues, family members and friends’, negative traits far more than their positive ones. 

The most effective way to change this is through gratitude. 

Relationships are the number one indicator of our happiness and the best way to cultivate them is to appreciate the people around us.

As with anything else, gratitude is meaningless unless it’s authentic. 

The best way to relay your appreciation is to be specific. 

Next time you thank someone touch on their behavior, the emotional impact that it made, as well as the tangible way it positively affected your life. 

Here’s an example. 

“Chase - Thank you so much for creating and designing our presentations. Our Founders Slideshares are one of my favorite projects that you and I work on. They enable us to distill our interviews into actionable tips to share with our community.” 

This statement is a lot more heartfelt than a text reading “Thx for your help!” 

When you’re at work, it’s helpful to add the way an individual’s contribution helped the company achieve its broader vision.  

Here are a few simple and free ideas to extend gratitude to your team:

  • Try making the first and last email you send each day a thank you
  • Handwrite one or two thank you notes each week 
  • Keep appreciation cards in the office for team members to recognize individuals who’ support them

Another way to make gratitude a habit is to keep a journal. 

Keeping a gratitude journal for 30 days will impact your brain chemistry for months in the future. 

“In that month, you will rewire your brain to be a more grateful brain. That’s the trick. To do something repeatedly and intensely enough that you’re rewiring your brain to think in a more grateful way,” Scott shared. 

The key to meaningful gratitude is not to practice it in the same way every day. Instead, you should follow different rituals to avoid hedonic adaptation —  when your brain adjusts to a particular habit.  

“Develop a habit that rewires your brain and then find variations in the way you express that gratitude - Sometimes writing it, saying it, or tweeting it,” Scott suggests. 

Gratitude not only boosts your happiness it impacts your confidence too. 

Phin Barnes, a Partner at First Round Capital, recently authored a great post on this: Can Giving Other People Credit Build Your Confidence? I Think So

Scott agreed when he said: “Confident people give credit to those around them. They build relationships and happiness in the process.” 

If you don’t feel confident, grateful or happy, fake it. 

Despite sounding unrealistic, studies have shown that when we fake something enough our body adjusts to it.

Translation: If you want to be a more confident person act like a more confident person.

While Scott’s work will empower you to be happier the most meaningful result of cultivating these habits is the way it will impact those around you. 

Our brains contain mirror neurons, meaning that when you’re happy and productive the individuals around you will be too. 

If you want to get happiness, give happiness!

For example, if your team senses that you’re extremely confident and excited about a new feature release they’ll feel the same.

Here are some resources from Happy Brain Science to make happiness a part of your organization. 

  • Practice gratitude in the office with Appreciation Cards
  • Get to know team members outside of their roles by holding Pecha Kucha presentations: Visual presentations where individuals bring 10-20 slides with photos representing personal parts of their lives.  
  • Celebrate your team by recognizing achievements with Strength Spotter Cards 
  • Start meetings on a positive note by having team members recognize individuals who helped them during the week.

Remember these tips as you introduce new cultural practices: 

  • Always lead with evidence - Nobody wants to be told what to do!
  • Practice what you preach - If you aren't actively working on these habits, your team won’t either. 
  • Don’t expect an overnight shift - Peyton Manning wasn’t born throwing Hail Mary’s. 
  • Positive relationships and emotions boost productivity - The happier your team members are, the more successful your business will be.  

The last insight Scott shared about productivity is the importance of working in a state of flow. 

Flow is when you’re in the zone; “At the edge of your abilities - with all of your cylinders firing towards making progress on a clear, meaningful goal,” he explained.

Here are a few simple flow strategies to practice yourself and suggest to your team. 

  • When appropriate, turn off invitations to your addictions such as Twitter, Slack, Facebook, and email. For the email obsessed: “Those who check email more frequently during the day have higher stress and lower productivity,” Scott shared. 
  • Set routine habits for yourself and your team. After briefly saying hello, the Happy Brain Science team works heads down until 11 a.m. to achieve their most important tasks early in the day. 
  • Plan and prioritize your tasks for the following day. You can gain great insight on this in the First Round Review piece: The Most Dangerous Leadership Traps — and the 15-Minute Daily Practice That Will Save You. 

If you find yourself, someone in your family, or a team member claiming that they don’t have time to implement these practices try asking these questions. 

  • Why don’t I have time? 
  • Why am I so busy? 
  • Why am I working so much? 
  • Why do I want to be successful? 
  • Why do I want to have the benefits of success? 

“When people say I don’t have time for happiness I ask them why. Most of what they’re doing is trying to become happy,” Scott said. 

“For the first time in human history we have hard scientific data as to what works to make us happy. We are chasing things that we think make us happy, but we are doing it wrong."

Why not take the direct route to happiness?

To gain deeper insight into Scott’s work and how you can apply these habits in your life tune into his episode of 33founders and follow him on Twitter here

You can also stay tuned for the team’s upcoming Fall 2015 release of: Choose Happiness At Work - an office game to promote mindfulness and collaboration - and Flow cards - sticky notes to alert team members when you’re in the zone. 



Further Reading
  • Seedling Relies on Childhood Curiosity to Inspire a Creative Team — On a recent flight home, I spent over an hour browsing a children’s play website, completely enamored by sets like Design Your Own Superhero Cape and Invent Your Own Insects. After sharing Seedling with everyone I know, despite few of my friends having children, I wondered why the brand struck a such a meaningful chord with me.
  • How to Make Flexibility Your Startup’s North Star — When Alexis Maybank discusses how photographers utilize Project September - an app making the visual world instantaneously shoppable - she describes it as a “living portfolio where they can unlock new relationships with viewers.” The demographic is different than the fashion bloggers and influencers the New York-based team expected.
  • How Inclusion Made Food52 the Web’s Hungriest Community — Before launching Food52, Amanda Hesser, and Merrill Stubbs spent their nights and weekends testing over 1,400 recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century. The experience laid the foundation for their co-founder relationship which is as fluid as the ebbs and flows of two chefs collaborating in the kitchen.


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